Saturday, April 8, 2017

A Great and Holy War: The Role of Religion in World War One

The Great War a “thoroughly religious event."

April 9 is the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge, which has taken on mythic status in Canada. Lots has been written about the war of which it was a small partfrom political, military, social and psychological perspectives. Not as much has been written about the role religion played in the conflict. In 2014, on the centennial of the start of the Great War, I wrote the following column.

Volumes have been written about the Great War, covering that epochal event from many different angles. One angle that hasn’t received as much attention, though, is religion.

That gap is being filled by Philip Jenkins, author of the new book The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade.

According to Jenkins, a history professor at Baylor University in Texas, it is impossible to fully comprehend the First World War without acknowledging the role religion played in creating and sustaining it.

Religion, he writes, is central to "understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war."

The War, he notes, was a “thoroughly religious event in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict.”

In the book, Jenkins shows how religion was used by politicians and the military on both sides to justify and support the conflict, using the language holy war, crusade, martyrdom, apocalypse and Armageddon.

The War, he says, was framed by belligerents on both sides “in thoroughly Christian terms. Each nation saw itself as playing a predestined role that was divinely inspired, and those self-concepts contributed mightily to the outbreak of war.”

The Russians, for example, viewed Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm as the Antichrist. Germans equated Britain with the great whore of Babylon in the book of Revelation. And English bishops informed their countrymen that they were God's “predestined instruments to save the Christian civilization of Europe.”

Clergy on all sides baptized the struggle, Jenkins says, becoming “vocal, even fanatical, advocates,” preaching “sophisticated arguments for holy warfare.”

That would include the Anglican bishop of London, who said in 1915: 

“Everyone that loves freedom and honour . . . are banded in a great crusade—we cannot deny it—to kill Germans; to kill them, not for the sake of killing, but to save the world; to kill the good as well as the bad, to kill the young as well as the old . . . to kill them lest the civilisation of the world itself be killed.”

Or the chaplain to the Speaker of the British House of Commons, who proclaimed that "to kill Germans is a divine service in the fullest acceptance of the word."

In Germany, people felt the same way—but from the other side.

As Roger Chickering notes in his book Imperial Germany and the Great War, 1914-18, “no sector of the population was more ardent a supporter of the war than the German Protestant Church. The fact that France was Catholic and Russia Orthodox supported the belief that Germany was fighting in the name of true—Protestant—Christianity, and that the triumph of Germany corresponded to the designs of God.”

Statements like those feel uncomfortable for 21st century ears. They sound more like what we are accustomed to hearing today from Islamic jihadists in Iraq or Afghanistan. But sentiments like these were regularly shared from pulpits in the warring nations, including Canada, in an effort to keep support for the war—and enlistments in the various armies—high.

In addition to shaping the War, religion was also shaped by it. The War triggered "a global religious revolution," Jenkins says, and in the process "drew the world's religious map as we know it today."

This redrawing of the map included the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of the last Caliphate, which led to the “assertive, self-confident, and aggressively sectarian” form of Islam we know today.

The end of the War witnessed the destruction of the Orthodox Church in Russia. And it also led to the creation of the state of Israel—an action that continues to reverberates even now.

On a personal level, the War caused many to doubt their faith and question the church. After such a calamity, who could believe in a loving and generous God anymore?

As Jeremy Paxman notes in his book, Great Britain’s Great War, soldiers on both sides found their beliefs tested. 

“What room was there for religion when those made in God's image were being blown to pieces all around? How could Hell be any worse than what they were living through?” he writes.

As the world marks the start of the Great War, and as Canada marks the centennial of the battle of Vimy Ridge, Jenkins’ book is a timely reminder of how often religion is recruited to justify and support war—of “how easily ideas of the church militarist emerge in times of crisis.”

It is also a reminder to Christians, in particular, that it wasn’t so long ago that the fanatical religious fervour we usually associate with Islamic extremists today could be heard, loud and clear, from many church pulpits across this land.

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